Getting the Most from Your OTC Medicine

Last Updated September 2022 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

OTC is short for “over-the-counter.” OTC drugs are medicines you can buy without a prescription from your doctor. You usually can find these medicines at your local grocery or drug store. Chances are, you’ve used OTC medicines to relieve headaches, other pain, constipation, nausea, or allergies. You may also have used them to treat symptoms of a cold or the flu. OTC medicines are generally safe and effective when following the directions on the package.

Path to improved health

If there is something you don’t understand about a medicine you’re taking or are planning to take, ask your doctor or pharmacist. If you are taking more than one medicine, be sure to ask how the medicines will work together in your body. Sometimes medicines cause problems when they are taken together. This is called a drug interaction.

How do I choose which OTC medicine to take?

Although it seems overwhelming, take the time to look at all your OTC choices. Read the drug facts label carefully. Find out what symptoms the medicine treats. Look for a medicine that will treat only the symptoms you have. For example, if you only have a runny nose, don’t pick a medicine that also treats coughs and headaches.

Check to see if the medicine causes problems in people who have certain health problems (for example, asthma or high blood pressure). If you have questions, ask your family doctor or pharmacist.

What’s the difference between generic and brand name OTC medicines?

Medicines come in both brand names and generics. Generic medicines generally cost less than brand name medicines. Compare the list of ingredients. If the generic has the same ingredients as the brand name, you may want to consider using it. Most of the time, a generic will work as well for you as the brand name medicine. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about which medicine to choose.

What do I need to know before I take an OTC medicine?

You should read the drug facts label on the package and note the following things about each OTC medicine you take:

  • Name (generic name and brand name) of the medicine.
  • What symptoms the medicine treats.
  • How much to take and how often to take it.
  • What measuring device (if any) to use to get the right amount of the medicine.
  • How long you should continue taking the medicine.
  • Possible side effects, and what to do if you experience them.
  • Special instructions (for example, taking it at bedtime or with meals).
  • What you should avoid while taking the medicine (for example, drinking alcohol, taking other medicines, or eating certain foods). See OTC Medicines: Know Your Risks and Reduce Them for more information.

Taking medicine: Dos and don’ts

  • Do read the drug facts label carefully.
  • Do take your medicine exactly as your doctor or the drug facts label instructs.
  • Do use the correct device to measure the medicine (for example, a spoon made for measuring medicine, or a syringe or cup).
  • Do make sure that each of your doctors (if you see more than 1) has a list of all the OTC and prescription medicines you’re currently taking.
  • Do keep a complete list of all the OTC and prescription medicines you take. Make sure a friend or family member knows where you keep that list in case of an emergency.
  • Don’t combine prescription medicines and OTC medicines unless your doctor says it’s okay.
  • Don’t stop taking a prescription medicine, change how much you take, or change how often you take it without talking to your doctor first.
  • Don’t take someone else’s medicine, whether OTC or prescription.
  • Don’t use medicine after its expiration date.
  • Don’t crush, break, or chew tablets or capsules unless your doctor tells you it’s okay. Some medicines won’t work right unless they are swallowed whole.
  • Don’t leave medicine in a place where children could reach it.

Things to consider

If you’re taking an OTC medicine and it doesn’t seem to be working, call your family doctor. Your doctor may need to check to see why you aren’t getting better.

You should also call your doctor if you experience side effects or have any concerns about the medicine you’re taking.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What OTC drugs will interact with prescription medicines I am taking?
  • Should I worry about drug allergies?
  • Is there any way to prevent side effects from OTC medicines?
  • What OTC medicines are safe to take when I’m pregnant?
  • What OTC medicines are safe to take when I’m breastfeeding?
  • What OTC medicines are safe to take when I have blood pressure or heart issues?


Food and Drug Administration: Understanding Over-the-Counter Medicines

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